I was in high school when I started my first list of unknown words.
It happened because I was tired of acing vocab quizzes in English class without having to study, and that was happening because I was a precocious kid who read a lot of books and seemed unable to stop adding to her already unwieldy (and often socially alienating) internal dictionary.
So I made a list. And I formatted it like the McSweeney’s Internet Tendency homepage, because it was 2005 and that’s what we did back then.
I never did anything so organized as quizzing myself on the entries, but when I rediscovered this artefact it turned out I’d learned almost all the words quite naturally in the course of becoming an adult. (Using them in conversation also seems to put less of a damper on my social life these days. Score one for finding your people.)
Anyway, several years ago I found myself jotting down word after word as I tore through Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. Her goshawk’s “breast feathers of vermiculated snow” were just the tip of the lexical iceberg. She deployed technical birding terminology and archaic literary expressions with equal and terrific frequency. I hadn’t read anything involving so many new-to-me words in ages.
So I made a new list. Just a messy thing in the notes app on my phone, not modeled after any particular beloved internet comedy website. And, as the books and years rolled by, I kept adding to it.
Eventually some Twitter conversation prompted me to share a selection of choice entries, but I thought it would be even better to catalogue them all on my own site. There’s now a slightly awkward, plugin-fueled version of that very feature here, but you can also subscribe to this RSS feed and it’ll just update your reader every time I add a new word. (The plugin also adds hover-activated definitions when I use catalogued words anywhere on the site, so that’s fun.)
I’ll warn you right now: I copy my definitions willy-nilly from whatever dictionary I have to hand, but I’m starting to get more deliberate about formatting and I do try and cite where I first encountered the word at the end of each entry.
If all goes according to plan, I can look back on this new list in twenty years and wonder how I ever got by without using the word lambrequin in a sentence every other day.
Until then, I hope you’ll enjoy delighting in these new terms as much as I do.
If you follow me elsewhere on the web, you’ve probably seen an uptick in posts about something called the Boat Gnome Mercantile Trading Program. Maybe it makes sense, maybe it doesn’t, so here’s a big ol’ post with some background about this zany undertaking and how you can play along.
If you just can’t wait to exchange goods with the Boat Gnome (even if you are, perhaps, a little unclear about what that entails), the Trade-by-Mail Program is already open to Patrons at any pledge level. You can find all the instructions for sending trades through the mail by becoming a Patron and visiting this post.
The Boat Gnome’s desired items for the 2019-2020 Trading Season are as follows:
An interesting shell (level of interest is in the eye of the beholder)
A piece of seaglass (bonus points for unusual colors)
A transcription of your favorite nautical poem (typed or hand-written, as preferred)
A knot (tied in a piece of string, twine, rope, etc and labelled by name)
The story goes like this: there is a gnome—a Space Gnome—who runs a trading outpost in outer space. She releases a list of desirable items prior to sending one of her representatives to conventions around the country. The desirable items are often simple. A nice rock. A cutting from a succulent. A poem. A story.
Traders may present the representative with one of these objects and receive, in exchange, a limited edition enamel pin.
Once a participant has made a trade and received a pin they become a Trusted Trader, and can return to the representative at future events (wearing their pin) and receive additional, special items. Shing also runs a trade-by-mail program exclusively for their Patreon supporters (DID I MENTION YOU CAN SUPPORT SHING ON PATREON?) in case folks can’t make it out to conventions.
I love this project. It’s subversive and human and playful and kind. So when Shing and I were on a ferry coming back from the Wayward Retreat this summer, I screwed up my courage and said:
“Do you think there might be other gnomes? I mean, hypothetically, what if there was also, say…a Boat Gnome?”
I felt self-conscious even asking. Why can’t I come up with my own ideas? Isn’t this plagiarism? But the beauty of this project lies in the fact that it’s not commercial in the slightest. Nobody’s making a profit. It’s a sandbox—a container for play, and as if to prove it Shing immediately shot up off the bench and shouted “YES!!!”
One month later they showed up in the front yard of childhood home in California (long story) and officially inducted me into the Association of Gnomes—a process I can’t recount here, so you’ll just have to flip through this Instagram Story really quick to experience it.
Armed with my gnome hat, I started drafting ideas. Since Shing had already come up with a format for the pins and cards, I decided to keep things simple and just riff on the existing material.
So here’s our Boat Gnome. (Perhaps suspiciously like a smaller version of me, but WHO’S KEEPING SCORE.) I translated this small friend onto a postcard that would mimic Shing’s space-themed offering with a load of nautical motifs.
And then came the PINS, which I wanted to match to Shing’s design so that enterprising traders could line them up in a handsome row on a lapel.
Once I had all my elements assembled, it was time to number all the backing cards and start assembling pins. The final result looks amazing.
The great thing about doing a project that won’t make me any money is that a lot of the perfectionism that usually dogs my steps during production is just…gone. Who cares if this isn’t utterly perfect? It’s a game. People are going to play.
I’ve spent a little over $500 assembling the materials for this project, which would’ve felt impossible three years ago. But I’m finally at a place in my career where not every expense has to turn a profit. There’s so much heart-felt fun to be had exchanging gifts with strangers and friends. And because of the support I receive on Patreon, I can do these kinds of projects. It’s such a wonderful privilege. I’ve already completed over 40 trades with people from all over the country, and the offerings are universally stellar.